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Getting Past the Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda.

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heartbroken117 asks:

My boyfriend (20) and I (19) have been together for three years. We really do love each other and so we decided to have sex about two years into our relationship. First things were great, but a few months after we had been having sex regularly he changed his mind. He said he liked me better when I was innocent and that he hated what we did. He stopped all those cute romantic things like telling me I was pretty and writing me love notes. No matter how hard I try, I can't get him interested in me again. He used to tell me he was going to marry me and we always talked about the future and everything but now he just says he doesn't know what the future will be. Obviously, had I thought this would happen we wouldn't have had sex in the first place but since I'm stupid... we did. What do I do? To call it quits after three years is just too much for me to handle... but I can't live like this anymore. HELP!

Heather Corinna replies:

I understand why you're feeling heartbroken. I'm so sorry this is how things have been going for you and that you're hurting so much.

I strongly doubt you were stupid, and I want to remind you that this isn't something you did by yourself: both of you chose to add sex to your relationship, not just you. If you two made a wrong turn with sex together -- and I'm not sure you did -- those are choices you made together, not by yourself, so only holding yourself responsible here just doesn't make sense. You're not responsible for his sexuality or his choices, only for yours: you aren't and weren't supposed to be making the choices for both of you, as that would have been unhealthy for you both. You only make your own choices for yourself, he for himself, and in what you do together, you make choices together, based ideally on each of your own self-awareness and what you both know you each want and feel ready for. Since you two held off for a long time before becoming sexual, I'm willing to bet you put a lot of thought into this, and that you talked about it together quite a bit before going ahead. I'm sure you based your choices on those feelings of your own and those talks: that you made this decision thoughtfully and carefully with the information you had, which is the best anyone can do. No matter how you slice it, it's not reasonable to put all of this on you, even though since it sounds like he is in some ways, I understand that you might feel you should. But you shouldn't.

It's not uncommon for sex to change a relationship. Sometimes those changes are negative, sometimes positive, sometimes neutral, and sometimes it's a mixed bag. But adding sex of any kind to a relationship almost undoubtedly creates some changes. How things change can be hard to predict. Predicting how each person might feel or react can also be difficult. If both of you had a lot of good information about sex, relationships and sexual decision-making, then it may have been easier, and a lot more likely that everyone's expectations were realistic, and that everyone had a good sense of what they were in for. But not only is there still room for surprises when you have good information, chances are that you probably didn't have as much information as you needed, because so few people do. With the both of you having little to no previous relationship and sexual experience, to boot, having this go differently than anticipated was more likely to happen than not.

Being new to sex and relationships is like being new to anything else in life: when we're first learning and experiencing, it's hard to know what to realistically expect and it's easy to make mistakes or missteps. We or others will fumble. There will often be surprises we like and surprises we don't. Getting anything just perfect right out of the gate (or ever!) is as unlikely with sex and love as it is with anything else: in a lot of ways, it's even less likely in these areas than in other parts of life, because sex and love are incredibly complex.

In our lives, we're going to invest time, love and energy in some things that aren't going to turn out like we wanted, or which we'll decide, eventually, aren't something we should continue to invest in. Whether it's about work, school, somewhere we live, a creative project, a partner, friends or family, we're all going to put ourselves into things that may sometimes turn out as we expected and sometimes won't; where sometimes we'll keep investing and other times we'll figure we need to pull out. I understand how hard it can be to think about letting go of something when you have invested a lot of time, energy and heart. It is hard to do that, almost always, but it is also something we're probably going to find ourselves needing to do way more than once in our lives.

So, as uncomfortable as it may make us sometimes, and as precarious as it can feel, we have to always be constantly considering if our investments really are or are not paying off for us, especially if we're continuing to invest in them. We also need to be sure that when we're investing in something, it's not all hinging on a maybe-future but on what's good and working for us in the here and now. We need to make sure that what we're continuing to invest in is what we intend to invest in and want to invest in. We also always need to be prepared to shift gears, and either pull out of a given investment, change how we're investing, or change where -- or with whom -- we're investing.

It sounds like you're invested in a relationship that was one way back when, but which has changed pretty radically over the last year. The relationship you are continuing to invest in now is not the same one you had or thought you had in the past: it's what you have right now. You can't invest in the past: you can only invest in your present and your future. It can be easy to hold onto things that are gone, or which are promised or imagined. In a lot of ways, ideals and hopes or things we loved in the past can be easier to get attached to than realities, which aren't always as sunny or lovely as the past is in hindsight and the future is in our dreams.

Is what you have now, and have had for over the least year, a place you think is sound to keep putting all your heart into? Is it -- as it is in the present and very recent past -- what you truly want to invest in? Since you're also supposed to be investing in this with someone else, do they really seem equally invested, and equally motivated to keep investing as much as you are? It doesn't sound to me like you'd want to keep investing in the relationship as it is now and has been for a while, like this is a healthy investment for you, or like the other person is as invested as you are or wants to invest as much as you do. It sounds like in the past, you invested in something that seemed -- and probably was -- worth investing in, but in the present, you may be making a bad investment if you continue.

You're saying things have not been good between you for close to a year: for around one third of your relationship, a major chunk. Not only do I hear your boyfriend saying some crummy things to you, it also sounds like he's been emotionally moving out. When you say things like "No matter how hard I try, I can't get him interested in me again," that says to me you've made some big efforts, and despite those efforts, this relationship is heading south. I think it's entirely possible that this relationship may already be over in a lot of ways, with both of you are just kind of sticking around like furniture left in an abandoned house.

Whether or not this is really about sex, or only about sex, is something I'm not sure of. You two have been together during a period of your lives that for most people is highly transitional. It's uncommon for high school relationships to transition through college or other adult life as the same kind of relationship, if they continue at all. It's much more common for them to fizzle out, end or shift to friendships, and not just because of sex or distance (like when one person goes off to college), but because the people in them are usually doing a lot of changing, which means the relationship will, too, especially since any two people who grow and change don't tend to do so in the same ways or at the same pace. Talking about marriage when you're so young, and in the first year of dating, is very early to do that. If you had asked me about this then, before things went the way they have, I would have suggested you not put too much stock in that because it was just so early on, both in your lives and in your relationship. I would have told you that it was best to take those words as being about someone's hopes and dreams more than about someone's actual plans or intentions, particularly since it can be really hard to envision an adult life before we've even started to live one, something it's hard to know until we've begun doing it.

It's common for relationships to change over time no matter the time of life they happen in, but during this time of life it tends to happen a lot more. It's just not usually a good time to try and create lifelong partnerships in, because everyone and everything is in so much flux. In your teens, you probably felt and were really different than you were as a young child: those were very different phases of your life and personal development. Moving into adulthood, it's just as different, sometimes even more so. The expectation that who you both were and were to each other as teenagers will be the same as you enter and go through your twenties just isn't a realistic one for most people.

I hear you saying clearly that you want things that he's been clear, either with his words or his behavior, he isn't interested in anymore. I hear you clearly saying you feel miserable, that you feel unable to live like this anymore. Rather than thinking about what you could have done or not done, if you did or didn't make the right sexual choices together, and what this relationship was in the past or could have been, I suggest you think about what you really want now and moving forward and what you can do now.

If you feel like you want or need to give this relationship one last shot, I suggest you ask to sit down and have some very serious conversations, probably over a few days. You sound like you have a fairly clear picture of what you want, but before you have these talks, if you spent a few days really thinking more about what that all is (and not just "how things were") and writing it out for yourself, I bet you could get even clearer. Then you can open that conversation by making clear to him what you want and need. These statements can include things like what you want now -- for instance, you need more positive gestures from him of how he feels about you, like love notes and compliments -- and what you want to move towards -- for instance, if marriage is still something you want, then you can make clear that's a goal you want him to share. Then you ask him if he wants these things and can provide them; if he wants to move towards the things you do. You might suggest he take a day to think on all that and get back to you, so he can be sure to give you as honest a set of answers as possible, rather than just reacting in the moment.

If he comes back and says he does want the same things, in the present and moving towards the future, does still want them with you, and does want to work on them, then you two start working on that as partners, not solo artists. If he needs to unpack some of the feelings he's been having around sex, you take the time to talk about all of that deeply together and adjust any sexual choices moving forward in whatever way you both feel is best. If you feel like you need some help doing this work together, you can seek out couples counseling: a three-year relationship is a long-term relationship, and there's obviously some big challenges here, so seeking out help may be wise.

If he comes back with "I don't know," or statements that make clear he doesn't want what you do, can't give what you need or just isn't feeling it anymore, I think you need to take those words very seriously and know they mean you will need to move on to get what you want because you are not going to find it in this relationship, and any further investment of your time isn't going to be a sound investment. I get that three years investing feels like a lot to move on from, but imagine how you might feel three more years in, or twenty years in if you kept investing more and things stayed this way or got worse.

I want to be sure to address his comment that he "liked you better innocent," a comment I find troubling, and which I'm sure hit you pretty hard. Innocence is a really loaded word, one that means all kinds of things to all kinds of people. But one thing it can typically mean to people is that a person is or is more like a child than an adult, especially when used in the context of sex. When someone says something like that to someone, it can give the impression they think you're ruined in some way, impure or sullied, which is obviously going to feel pretty awful, especially when you intended sex and feel sex as an expression of love.

I'm going to assume that if you were talking and thinking about things like marriage, you were both aiming for an adult relationship, right? Probably one you both figured would include sex? If so, he would have been opting to have an adult relationship as and with an adult, someone who was not going to stay the 16-year-old person he started dating no matter what they did or didn't do sexually. His reaction to your sex life may be in part about bad timing: maybe he just really wasn't ready for that, and either wasn't honest with you about not feeling ready beforehand, or only realized he wasn't once you two became sexual together. I think it's possible his statement that he liked you "better innocent" may actually be a statement about himself he's projecting onto you: that it may be he felt more comfortable with himself before becoming sexual with someone else. As much as I dislike what he said to you and the way he said it, I think it's possible what he's voicing is that he just doesn't feel ready for a sexual relationship yet or to be at that stage of life. That's something many young men have a hard time voicing and tend to be dishonest about -- not just with partners, but with themselves -- because so many feel masculinity is tied into having sex or being ready for sex. I'm not saying that to excuse how he's acting, but to give you some possible explanations for his behavior.

But unless he told you or is telling you now he wasn't ready -- and talks to you about his feelings about sex in a way that's much more constructive and real -- you couldn't have known that. You also can't know if he would have reacted this way whether you had sex a year later, five years later or ten years later: it's possible he would have reacted the exact same way no matter when the two of you became sexual together, especially if part of his issue is that he preferred a relationship with you in which was not sexual, and/or in which you (or he) were not yet an adult person with an adult sexuality. It may well be he wanted his teenage relationship to stay frozen in time the way it was, rather than transitioning into an adult relationship. Sometimes people can feel that way.

That and a bunch of other things I've said here given, I think that you'll want to try and let go of the idea that if you only hadn't had sex with him, things would be as they were in that first year evermore, or would have turned out like you wanted them to ideally. Because not only am I not sure they would have, I have a feeling they wouldn't have, no matter what. In strong relationships where everyone really is and continues to be invested and also has the maturity to be in serious intimate relationships, one choice that wasn't just right won't tend to derail the whole thing like this. After all, if being sexual together just wasn't or didn't feel right for one or both of you, there's always been the option to just step back away from that, to talk it all through, to make adjustments. But that's not what happened, and I suspect that's because how things have gone just isn't only about sex or that choice.

Please know there is no perfect sexual choice. There are only the best choices we can make at a given time with all the information we have at hand and whatever decision-making skills we and others have to make them with.

A lot of people who feel they made a wrong sexual choice tend to think there is a perfect sexual choice; they have the idea that if they had only decided to have sex on this day instead of that one, in the previous or next year, at this point in the relationship, with this person or not with this person, or while wearing their lucky socks which they foolishly forgot, then everything they wanted and didn't get would have fallen magically into place. The trouble with that kind of thinking is that it's 100% speculation that we can never put to the test. As well, someone like me who does the job I do sees people wishing they had done things exactly this given way to make this given thing happen, while also seeing people who did do things that given way and yet did not have that expected result. I see people who waited for sex and regret it, people who didn't wait and regret it. I hear from people who made this set of choices, and people who made this different set of choices, neither happy with the results, and yet both of them thinking if they just made the choice the other did, things would have been different.

By all means, we all take certain things from our choices and experiences that may change how we make choices in the future, some of which can be more likely to get us what we want. But as we grow and live life, the conclusion most folks tend to draw is that there are things we can do to keep making sounder and sounder choices the more we learn and experience, but there's also a certain amount of control we have to accept we just don't and can't have. That given, some of what we tend to understand more and more is that in making choices, one thing we need to be pretty sure of is that we feel up to handling things not going the way that we want them to when we make a choice, and capable of managing those feelings well, both for ourselves and with others. If anything, I think that's perhaps the place where you two could have stood to be a little more mindful, though more so on your boyfriend's part than yours.

It might be challenging for you for a while to let go of the idea that this was all about you making one wrong sexual choice, even though I feel very certain that's not what happened. I strongly hope you know that whatever your sexuality is and is like, because this person reacted this way doesn't mean it's bad or that you're bad or that part of you isn't okay. I hope whatever you decide to do, you can move forward still feeling pretty confident in your sexual choices, whatever they may be.

I want to give you a few little helps in decision-making around sex and relationships for the future should you feel less than confident for a bit. You can always take baby steps with sex with a partner to see how they handle it and to see what kind of impact it is or isn't having on your relationship: if you're starting to get sexual and they start to get weird, emotionally withdrawn or behave very differently towards you, you can always pull back, evaluate how you feel, talk about it and adapt your choices, which may be to choose not to have more sex for a while, or may be to choose not to pursue a romantic relationship together any further. Sometimes people reacting badly to sex isn't about the timing, it's about any given set of people just being a poor match, period, sexually or otherwise. If and when someone starts acting with you the way this guy has been, my best advice, honestly, is to see the signs of someone checking out more clearly and to start to move on, rather than to stay in it, especially when your efforts to work things out don't create changes. It might also help to be transparent with future partners about this experience: get a feel for their take about it, and make sure they really get that this was heavy for you. I'm leaving a link to a sexual readiness checklist at the bottom of the page: you can talk about some of the things on it with potential partners in the future, including things that came into play here, like how you two think you'll manage changes in the relationship sex can bring, how you'll emotionally take care of each other, how you'll communicate about sex, and how ready each of you really feels.

I hope you know that whatever you invested in the past probably was not wasted if this relationship does not become what you wanted. I'm of the mind that nothing we invest ourselves in in our lives is wasted, no matter how things turn out or how heartbroken we feel. Now, for instance, you have some of experience for your choices and relationships in the future. You also are probably about to get some skills in taking care of yourself when you're hurting, and that's really important because some of life is going to hurt like hell. Maybe you'll learn how to create a friendship with someone who used to be a lover: that's also a big deal. Maybe you'll have learned some clues about when a relationship isn't working or when you're not a good sexual fit with someone else: that's invaluable. Maybe you'll learn how to see better when something really is your sole responsibility and when it isn't. Maybe you'll learn how to more clearly see when someone may be putting something on you that's really about themselves, and know that rather than internalizing it, you need to put that ball back in their court where it belongs.

Chances are, that last paragraph was an eye-roller for you. When someone tells us about life lessons we may get from something awful, it can make us want to kick them in the shins. But a few years, and most certainly a few decades, down the road, I'm willing to bet you'll find some of those values up there in all of this this, so maybe for right now -- and with my shins at a safe distance from your feet -- you can just trust the littlest bit that your investment probably wasn't wasted here and may, in fact, wind up helping you in some ways to get what you really want in the present and the future.

I'm going to leave you with a few links to look at, which include some pieces that may help with decision-making both about sex and about relationships as a whole. The relationship pieces may also be helpful if you're going to make that list of what you want to try and have that one last set of talks with this guy, or for you to just have a better idea of what you want and need when considering relationships in the future. No matter what, I hope you can figure out what your own best choices are about this relationship, and that whatever they are, I hope they are strongly guided by what you really want and need and will move you towards people and places where you're most likely to find those things.

written 29 Nov 2010 . updated 20 Jan 2014

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